As a therapist and human being, there are a few things I know to be true about people in relationships. One is that we all need acceptance, love, and security. The second is that no one is perfect at providing those things all of the time. Essentially, we all screw up at some point, and have to figure out how to offer a sincere apology. I recently had a great session educating a couple on conflict resolution skills. They specifically focusing on being able to take credit for their part of the argument. Guess what I did right after that? I went home and did the exact opposite of that to my husband.
I’ve gone through a lot of years of school and trainings. I know what makes relationships successful and what couples need to do to get there. Yet, there I was, getting defensive about forgetting to pick up the groceries rather than owning it and apologizing. In a world where we will never be perfect, the ability to give a sincere apology is a skill that is always beneficial.
A research study completed in 2016 identified six components that were scientifically found to make apologies significantly more effective according to the person receiving the apology. I’ve listed them below from most important in terms of creating an effective apology to the least important. So if you can only remember a few, remember the first few!
How to Offer a Sincere Apology in Six Steps
Acknowledgement of Responsibility
The most important element of a successful and effective apology is the acknowledgment of responsibility. This is basically the equivalent of admitting where you were at fault. For someone to know an apology is genuine, they need to hear ownership. In essence, you need to take responsibilty for what happened. They also need to know you are not making excuses or putting the blame on anyone else. Taking responsibility for your actions was ranked as the most important element of an effective and genuine apology.
Offer of Repair
The second most important factor in an effective apology is the offer of repair. You made a mistake, what can you offer to do to make it better? This element of an apology is especially important if the action you are apologizing for has been done before. It also is important if the person is having a hard time believing that you are really sorry. When you can offer something to fix the situation, people are significantly more likely to believe you mean what you are saying. You can also offer an example of how you will respond differently next time.
Express Regret, Declare Repentance, and Explain What Went Wrong
The next three elements; expression of regret, declaration of repentance, and explanation of what went wrong, were found to be about equal in terms of significance in an effective apology. These factors should be used in three ways. First a person should explain how they regret what they did. Second, how they have changed or altered their mindset due to the remorse they are experiencing. And third, a person should then give the reasoning as to why what happened occurred. Be mindful that when you are explaining what happened, it can come out sounding like blame or excuses and negate the effectiveness of your apology. It is important to make sure all the other components of an effective apology exist along with your explanation or the person listening will likely not care too much about the your explanation.
Lastly, request for forgiveness. Researchers found this was the least important element of whether or not someone ranked an apology as effective and genuine. Although asking for forgiveness is nice, oftentimes this factor is related more to our own feelings of guilt. Or wanting to ensure that the other person is not angry or disappointed in us.
To sum it up – an effective apology should look like this:
“I am so sorry that I forgot to take the trash out. I know you asked me to and I did forget to do that this morning (acknowledgment of responsibility).
Can I take the trash outside now or is there something else I can do to help you right now to make up for it (offer of repair)?
I feel really bad that I forgot and you had to take it out (expression of regret), I won’t let it happen again (declaration of repentance).
I know it shouldn’t be an excuse but I was running really late this morning and it totally slipped my mind (explanation of what happened).
Will you forgive me (request for forgiveness)?
If you and your partner struggle with conflict there may be some deeper hurts at play that take longer to forgive and process. This also may display as having a hard time reaching a place where you can give a heartfelt apology. If this is the case or you simply want a more in depth look at how you and your partner can “fight fair” and repair conflicts, this group of therapists are highly trained and able to help.